Many people have heard the term “punitive damages” and want to know how it applies to their personal injury or car accident claim in Las Vegas. “Punitive damages” is an amount that is awarded by a jury to punish a party in a civil lawsuit. This term is also sometimes called “exemplary damages,” as the award is intended to set an example. Punitive or exemplary damages is usually contrasted with compensatory damages, which are intended to make an accident victim whole again. Compensatory damages usually include medical bills, lost income, pain and suffering, and lost enjoyment of life.
Punitive damages cannot be awarded in most cases. For a personal injury plaintiff to even be able a jury for punitive damages, the plaintiff must show that the defendant was more than negligent. Negligence generally means careless. In other words, to be able to ask for punitive damages, a plaintiff must show that a defendant was more than careless. In Nevada, usually, this means showing that a defendant acted intentionally, recklessly, or with intent to do harm. In car accident cases, punitive damages usually do not apply but may apply in drunk driving cases. It should also apply to cases where a defendant was texting and driving.
In the McDonald’s coffee cup case that a lot of people seem to know about, the biggest portion of the jury’s award was the punitive damages. The jury in that case awarded $2.7 million against McDonalds. The large jury award in the case upset many people. Those people tend to refer to the McDonald’s case as an example of a frivolous lawsuit where the accident victim became rich. However, the purpose of that $2.7 million award was to punish McDonalds. The plaintiff’s attorney in that case showed that McDonalds served their coffee at temperatures higher than other restaurants. They also showed that, in a decade, McDonalds received about 700 complaints of people suffering burns from their coffee. In awarding punitive damages against McDonalds, the jury believed that McDonalds needed to be punished for their policy and deterred from continuing to follow this policy.
Nevada Law On Punitive Damages
In Nevada, the legislature enacted laws that governs when punitive damages can be awarded. Those laws can be found in Chapter 42 of the Nevada Revised Statutes (NRS). Under NRS § 42.005, a jury may award punitive damages against a defendant who “has been guilty of oppression, fraud or malice, express or implied.” NRS § 42.001 defines these terms as follows:
NRS § 42.001. Definitions; exceptions. As used in this chapter, unless the context otherwise requires and except as otherwise provided in subsection 5 of NRS 42.005:
- “Conscious disregard” means the knowledge of the probable harmful consequences of a wrongful act and a willful and deliberate failure to act to avoid those consequences.
- “Fraud” means an intentional misrepresentation, deception or concealment of a material fact known to the person with the intent to deprive another person of his or her rights or property or to otherwise injure another person.
- “Malice, express or implied” means conduct which is intended to injure a person or despicable conduct which is engaged in with a conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others.
- “Oppression” means despicable conduct that subjects a person to cruel and unjust hardship with conscious disregard of the rights of the person.
The Nevada legislature also limited how much punitive damages can be awarded in most cases. Subsection (1) of NRS § 42.005 limits the amount of punitive damage awards as follows:
- Except as otherwise provided in NRS § 42.007, in an action for the breach of an obligation not arising from contract, where it is proven by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant has been guilty of oppression, fraud or malice, express or implied, the plaintiff, in addition to the compensatory damages, may recover damages for the sake of example and by way of punishing the defendant. Except as otherwise provided in this section or by specific statute, an award of exemplary or punitive damages made pursuant to this section may not exceed:
(a) Three times the amount of compensatory damages awarded to the plaintiff if the amount of compensatory damages is $100,000 or more; or
(b) Three hundred thousand dollars if the amount of compensatory damages awarded to the plaintiff is less than $100,000.
The above limitation on punitive damages do not apply to product defect or product liability cases and to insurance bad faith cases, amongst others. See NRS § 42.005(2).
Examples of Punitive Damage Awards in Nevada
In a recent Las Vegas medical malpractice case, a jury assessed $8 million in punitive damages against a local hand surgeon. The jury found that the hand surgeon had committed fraud. The plaintiff, a U.S. Air Force pilot, claimed that the surgeon performed a procedure that was not the standard of care. In fact, the plaintiff presented expert testimony that no other hand surgeon ever performed or would have performed the same procedure. The plaintiff also argued that the surgeon performed the procedure in order to guarantee that the plaintiff will require future procedures, for which the surgeon can financially benefit.
In a product liability lawsuit, plaintiffs alleged that a drug manufacturer sold hormone replacement therapy drugs that increased the risk of getting breast cancer and failed to adequately warn its customers. The jury found that the defendant guilty of malice or fraud, and a separate trial was held on the question of how much the punitive damage award should be. Following that separate trial, the jury awarded a total of $99 million in punitive damages against the defendant. See Wyeth v. Rowatt, 126 Nev. 446, 244 P.3d 765 (Nev. 2010).
If you or a loved one have been injured and want to know if punitive damages apply to your personal injury case, speak to a Las Vegas personal injury and car accident attorney at D.R. Patti & Associates. Our experienced personal injury attorneys have dealt with punitive damages on many occasions and can answer your questions. Call 702-331-3391 for a free case consultation.